A MARTINEZ, HOST:
Take a few minutes now to hear about the potential healing power of the arts.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "O MIO BABBINO CARO")
RENEE FLEMING: (Singing in Italian).
MARTINEZ: A newly formed partnership of artists and brain scientists is studying how treatments that use music, poetry and visual art can rewire the brain. NPR's Jon Hamilton takes us inside this research.
JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: The partnership, known as the NeuroArts Blueprint, wants to understand the brains of people like Michael Schneider. During a 22-year career in the Marines, his brain took a few hits.
MICHAEL SCHNEIDER: I had a traumatic brain injury when I was involved in a helicopter incident on board a U.S. Naval vessel.
HAMILTON: That was in 2005. Later that year, Schneider experienced decompression sickness while training for high-altitude flights. He says the result was like a stroke.
SCHNEIDER: On my right side of my body, I lost all feeling.
HAMILTON: Schneider recovered from both incidents, but they took a toll on his brain. And by 2014, he was having serious problems.
SCHNEIDER: So I had this progression of really bad seizures. So at one point I was having 20 to 40 seizures a day.
HAMILTON: Plus symptoms of PTSD and depression. Schneider got treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, but he wasn't getting better.
SCHNEIDER: I had lost hope. You know, I didn't really believe that I was going to make it through the next couple of years just because of - not suicidal thoughts or anything, but more my brain was just - it was shutting down.
HAMILTON: Military doctors referred Schneider to an arts therapy program called Creative Forces. It was started by the Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts. And Schneider began working with a music therapist named Rebecca Vaudreuil. Early on, she learned something intriguing about the big Marine from Marquette, Mich.
REBECCA VAUDREUIL: He had a history in doing theater arts. And so I could tell that, you know, there was some priming there.
HAMILTON: Vaudreuil had Schneider play a few notes on the piano.
SCHNEIDER: And I started to sing the notes. I started to hum the notes.
VAUDREUIL: I heard him pitch matching one day, and we started really exploring his voice.
SCHNEIDER: What did we sing, Rebecca, again, from the Italian opera I did?
VAUDREUIL: (Singing in Italian).
SCHNEIDER: Yeah. Yeah, I did some Italian opera.
HAMILTON: Andrea Bocelli-style. That led to a whole lot of musical exploration, including the ukulele.
SCHNEIDER: I can't actually play a song, but I can play chords to take my stress level down. And I'm able to refocus again in my life. So that's why it's always right here by my computer.
(SOUNDBITE OF UKULELE MUSIC)
HAMILTON: For Schneider, the therapy has helped. He has fewer seizures, less anxiety, a better relationship with his family. And Vaudreuil says anecdotal reports like Schneider's are beginning to get some scientific backing.
VAUDREUIL: We know that when we receive music, even when we hear music, we're activating multiple parts of the brain. And that is really building that circuitry that can really help with rebuilding areas of damage.
HAMILTON: There are hints that the brain also responds to other art therapies, like poetry, painting, dance and sculpture, but most still haven't received rigorous scientific evaluation. The NeuroArts Blueprint is designed to change that. At its core is a partnership between Johns Hopkins and the Aspen Institute, and its leadership includes both prominent brain scientists and acclaimed artists, like soprano Renee Fleming. Fleming has even had her own brain scanned in the name of science.
FLEMING: I didn't really quite understand what it meant to be in an fMRI machine for two hours.
HAMILTON: She found out while taking part in a study at the National Institutes of Health in 2017.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We're going to start our first scan.
FLEMING: (Singing in non-English language).
They had me singing, imagining singing and speaking. And they would have probably guessed that singing would have the largest effect on my brain. But it didn't. It was imagining singing.
HAMILTON: For Fleming, efforts like the NeuroArts Blueprint represent a big shift in thinking since the early days of her career.
FLEMING: I had terrible stage fright. I had somatic pain from performance pressure, which made me kind of research the mind and body connection, which wasn't particularly supported when I was a young singer. It is now.
HAMILTON: And these days, when Fleming is on the road, she makes a point of meeting with scientists and arts therapists.
FLEMING: I saw a music therapist working with a gentleman who'd had a stroke and couldn't speak. And within one session of singing, he could communicate.
HAMILTON: Studies suggest that's because singing and speaking use different brain circuits. Fleming wants to see neuroarts recognized as its own field, complete with funding and educational programs. And she's got some powerful allies who share that goal. One is Dr. Francis Collins, a geneticist and guitar player who also ran the NIH for a dozen years.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RENEE FLEMING AND FRANCIS COLLINS: (Singing) Hard times, hard times come again no more. Many days...
HAMILTON: Collins and Fleming are known to sing duets when they're not talking about science. Another Fleming ally is Dr. Eric Nestler, who directs the Friedman Brain Institute at Mount Sinai in New York.
ERIC NESTLER: We've recognized how our two worlds can merge in this really interesting way.
HAMILTON: It helps that Nestler is a big fan of the uber famous soprano.
NESTLER: To hang out with Renee Fleming is a particular privilege.
HAMILTON: Nestler believes that arts therapies work. But he says it will take more than that to establish the approach as a form of health care.
NESTLER: We're going to need to provide robust empirical data demonstrating that there is efficacy in doing so.
HAMILTON: And Nestler says the technology to do this is only just arriving. For example, state-of-the-art MRIs suggest that people with depression tend to have less activity in brain areas associated with pleasure.
NESTLER: One could show that the presence of music or the appreciation of visual art might help restore that deficiency.
HAMILTON: Nestler says even with good evidence, though, it will take time and effort to make arts therapies an accepted form of treatment.
NESTLER: No one asks a question about paying a hundred thousand dollars or more for spine surgery. But to apply music therapy for a person with a brain condition - to get an insurance company to pay for that is going to be a major struggle.
HAMILTON: In the meantime, people like Marine Michael Schneider say they're just happy to have found something that works for them.
SCHNEIDER: Relearning music, it was able to open up all these new pathways and neural paths through my brain. And that was the piece that I was missing.
HAMILTON: Schneider has even embraced other forms of artistic expression.
SCHNEIDER: I do artwork on leather. I do written word. I've written poetry. I do that to stay healthy.
HAMILTON: And Schneider says staying healthy has allowed him to do things like drive a car again without fear.
SCHNEIDER: I've gotten a bunch of my stuff back. Am I all the way back? No, but I'm getting there.
HAMILTON: Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXIS FFRENCH'S "BLUEBIRD")
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